Johnny is a dashing small fellow dashed off in brown acrylic on white, his 1930s top hat partnering nicely with an urbane bow tie. His ironic expression is familiar from countless Hollywood movies of the golden years--think of a Fred Astaire raised eyebrow, a Cary Grant smirk.
Pleasing as Ritter's little painting is, it's even more of a pleasure to find a Ritter on the wall at all. Best known around town as an indefatigable art collector and a Tucson Museum of Art trustee, Ritter comes out as an artist, and a deft one, in this annual summer exhibition showcasing Tucson talents writ small. Some 50 Tucsonans and southern Arizonans, most of them much better known as artists than Ritter, contributed tiny works this year, all of them distilling their trademark styles into compact foot-square paintings or 10-inch high sculptures.
Shows of this sort by necessity have no particular theme: you get 50 artists doing what they usually do, only smaller--Jim Waid painting florid abstracted flowers and James Cook buttery seas, Alfred Quiroz sculpting a wild-eyed Aztec. As per usual, there is a preponderance of landscapes, a genre all but guaranteed in any random collection of Tucson works, but "Stage Door Johnny," given a place of honor as the show's opening work, suggests an inadvertent alternative theme. The Eighth Annual has a nice sprinkling of works investigating notions of maleness. Who'd have guessed?
Maleness is in the air of late. Publishers rush out new how-to's on raising boys. Presidential candidates vie for the appropriate male panache, Al Gore trying for Regular Guy in polo shirts, George W. assaying the Grown-up in suits. This minor ripple in the Zeitgeist turns up in this exhibition, which offers up visions of maleness as diverse as Ritter's man-about-town and Greg Benson's primitive sculpted hunter. Ritter's Johnny is an old-fashioned ideal of sophisticated manhood. Despite the fancy-dancy evening wear, he's more solid than he looks, a man who can be relied upon not only to negotiate the nightclub world but comfort a weeping starlet. Ritter's fluid old-fashioned painting is a bit of nostalgia for what used to be called a man's man, when a man could be both polished and real.
Benson, by contrast, finds nothing to celebrate in "Hunter, First Man," a sculptural satire of the contemporary NRA he-man. The piece couldn't be more crudely made: like Ritter, Benson uses his materials to reflect his thoughts on his subject. Benson has chopped up splintery lumberyard scraps and painted them roughly, staining the unfinished surface with thin colors. He's dressed his hunter in splotchy camouflage, and he's given the man a silly grin. The hunter clutches a big orange stick and waves a handgun heedlessly. He'd be dangerous in real life, and even as sculpture he could do some damage if you even tried to pick him up.
Garth Wallrich moves the discussion in a 180-degree turn with "Gentle Men," a mixed media piece that does a high-wire act both embracing and decrying stereotypes about gay men. Edged in blue lace, the wall piece has as its center a photo emulsion on linen portrait of Wallrich and his longtime companion, the artist Ned Gray. Fine netting, its stitched flowers painted blue, overlays their genial black-and-white portrait. The punning title words, rendered in a frilly orange script, hearken back to such olden-days gentlemen as Johnny, and propose a new gay-friendly type of gentle man.
Like his colleagues, Wallrich wields his materials astutely. He rescues fabric out of the girl-art ghetto where it's been confined, and deploys it a boy-art boy piece that breaches rigid ideas of gender rights and wrongs. Wallrich cleverly takes the sting out of nasty epithets like "sissy" by unabashedly embracing the frothy materials.
James G. Davis contributes an oil on board of the unfortunate "Prometheus," the Greek Titan punished by Zeus for giving fire to humankind. Davis's hero, like the mythological character, is chained to a rock, while a huge crow stands at the ready to eat his liver, which will grow back each day. Davis, who often turns out uneasy visions of city life and of male-female relations, does an existential turn by picturing Prometheus as a modern man, struggling haplessly, hopelessly through life, despite the nice electronic toys at his feet. Similarly, Michael Chittock's quintessential lonely guy is parked in front of a TV set in the mixed-media painting "Dark Hall;" Daryl Childs ponders aging in the dark "Time Rages," a pastel portrait of a white-faced man who seems haunted by the phantom of his younger self floating above.
No woman artist in the show seems to have pondered on male fate, but Debra Salopek has offered up instead a moody landscape where some of these painted men might like to roam. A sterling oil evocation of the southern Arizona grasslands, her untitled painting reduces that fine land to curving gold hills and gloomy green sky. Herb Gilbert, the fine abstractionist of Bisbee who slides into the show under the same loose residency rules as Elgin's Salopek, has made an appealing painting on a stamped envelope. "Lopescape No. 24" he calls it, and though its stamp alerts us to nearby civilization, its rust, ochre and earth green swathes have the earthy texture of the earth or a cave. You could lose yourself in its tiny embrace. It wouldn't be a place for anyone to sit and contemplate man's fate.